Posts Tagged instructional design

MASLO: An Open Source Mobile Learning Platform

Official MASLO logoThe unofficial MASLO post – we are getting a new site up over at the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Lab so this post will help people to learn more about MASLO until the site is ready.

The Academic ADL Co-lab (at University of Wisconsin-Extension) is continuing to build a new open source mobile learning platform called MASLO. MASLO stands for Mobile Access to Supplementary Learning Objects, which was not meant to be a permanent name  but these things have a way of sticking around.  If you want to follow MASLO development and be notified when code updates are available, head over to the Co-Lab MASLO page to get on the mailing list.

MASLO is an authoring tool (built with Adobe AIR), two mobile player applications (Android and iOS), and a separate storage mechanism (we are using Amazon S3 but any web host will work).

The basics use of MASLO is simple enough: plop content into the authoring tool, preview it, and then upload it to the Amazon host. The content (images, text files, audio, simple quizes, and video) is stored in raw form on the web host.  The device players download the packets and format the content to fit the phone.

Note: MASLO is not a specific mobile application but it is an open source system for creating mobile learning applications.

Some key features:

  • The authoring tool allows a preview of what the content will look like on a mobile device.
  • Authoring tool runs on Mac, PC, Linux
  • The system supports free content packages and in-app purchasing for content you might want to sell.
  • Content packages are fully donwloadable to  the device.  No internet connection is required after the content is on the device. This is very helpful in situations where constant wireless connectivity might be a problem.
  • The code is open and you can modify it to meet the needs of your organization.

 Authoring Content

The goal of MASLO is not to be the most sophisticated mobile authoring tool, it is to be extremely simple. We have sacrificed more sophisticated authoring options to keep the barrier for entry to creating mobile content as low as possible.

See this very quick and dirty 3 minute 45 second authoring tool walkthrough video:

The authoring tool is available for download now at the official MASLO page but here are direct links to Mac and PC versions. Note: This will not publish anywhere because you need to have apps and storage setup but you can create mobile learning content and preview it in the tool. If you are especially adventurous, you can get the authoring tool code on the MASLO Github page.


We chose Amazon’s EC2 because it is inexpensive, scalable, and flexible. If you decide to download and use the MASLO authoring system, it is storage agnostic but we are building some admin tools to support EC2.  EC2 has some other advantages when it comes to having paid in-app content packages but, if you only plan to distribute free content, then any web storage solution will work fine.

Documentation on how to set up the Amazon EC2 will be available at some point in the next 6 weeks.

iOS and Android Mobile Applications

We have built two mobile application players: 1 for iOS and one for Android.  Other operating systems can be added later.  The first application to be published using the MASLO system will be called the ADL MASLO Setup Guide.  As soon as it is available through Apple, I will link to it from this post.  In essence, we are dogfooding by creating an application to teach about how to set up apps with the system. This set up guide will launch with the most stripped down version of the interface (see screenshots below).  Modifications to colors and logo are easy for anyone with iOS and Android experience.

In the application, there a list of packs on the device, a link to a store to download or purchase new packs, and context-aware search (e.g. when on the store tab, it searches all packs in the store, when on the device tab it searches just packs on the device, when inside a content pack it searches text within that pack).    There are few user settings at this time but we have a tab for that as well.

Home Screen (shows packs on the device):

MASLO iOS Home Screen

Screen capture of the MASLO iOS Home Screen with two sample content packs.

Store Screen (shows packs available for download):

MASLO iOS Store Tab

Screen capture showing all available content packages from the store.

Example of a quiz question screen:

iOS MASLO Quiz Question Screen

iOS MASLO Quiz Question screen example

These are just a couple of quick screen shots of a minimalist version of the iOS MASLO app.  Customizations are easy and a much more sophisticated look and feel is certainly possible.

We are at the beginning of creating this platform.  More than 80 people have signed up to the MASLO mailing list and several folks have already voiced interest in contributing to the code.  If you would like to follow our progress or contribute, please join us!


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Developing Expertise: 2012 ASG eLearning Meeting Reflections

2012 ASG eLearning - this is a sign directing participants to the location of the meeting at the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA

2012 ASG eLearning - This way to learn!

I just returned from a meeting in Seattle with distance education colleagues from several universities. Six of us traveled from the University of Wisconsin-Extension in Madison to the institution of our outstanding hosts at the “other” UW (University of Washington). We were joined by instructional designers, media developers, and distance education leaders from Georgia Tech, Northwestern, and Boston University. The meeting was a great example of how to gather a group of experts together to create a meaningful learning experience. This post is part reflection and part micro-case study.


The dean at UW-Extension had spoken with his peers about the distance learning groups in their institutions. He sent an email to see if there was interest in getting instructional designers and others in elearning departments together for a professional development opportunity. Representatives from five other institutions responded to the email. I agreed to start the ball rolling by setting up the first phone conference. We began phone conversations in September 2011 about whether the expense and effort of a face-to-face meeting would benefit our teams. The first point of discussion was about the format. I asked whether we needed yet another conference for our teams to attend. The steering group agreed that there was little value in that format because there are many conferences we can attend if we want a traditional event. I suggested that we try a loosely structured series of conversations. There would be no no PowerPoint or even show-and-tell, just semi-structured conversations and networking time.

These types of events can seem a bit risky if you are used to having lots of structure and predetermined content. Will we have enough to talk about? What if our work is too different to relate? Will everyone be able to participate? This group, however, immediately thought the format would work and we brainstormed about 20 topics.

Tools for the job

I started a Google doc and we began to use it as a central repository for topic ideas, the attendee list, and logistics (hotels, meeting info, etc). We then narrowed down our 20 topics to 6, each with 90 minute blocks over a 1 1/2 day event. We added 45 minutes for morning coffee and bagels, an extended networking lunch, and 15-minute breaks after each session so that we had plenty of mental “white space” around the topics.

In the Google doc, we created a table with the schedule and included an extra column for volunteer moderators. At first, no one ventured to put their name in the boxes. I sent an email explaining the moderator role as a facilitator, not an expert on a topic. Moderators needed to simply come prepared to throw a few questions out as conversation starters. The column filled with moderators as the event approached. Moderators began listing topic questions in the Google doc and created spaces for notes. As the event unfolded, the doc became a crowdsourced repository of links, notes, and ideas.

The Setting

The event was held in a unique setting: the Center for Urban Horticulture just off the University of Washington campus. There reasons for holding the meeting there were largely pragmatic but there was some intent to get us out of a traditional conference space. The unique space made a big difference. People felt at ease as soon as they walked through a small garden to reach the classroom.

Garden at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle, WA

The setting can make a big difference! Garden at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture

The Event

We started with introductions and then launched into the first conversation about LMS usage. Even though the moderator was prepared to keep the conversation going, there was no lull that required intervention. The first 90 minutes was almost over too soon and people continued talking into the break. After the break, people were seated and ready to go, no prompting or gathering required. The next topic, mobile learning, quickly picked up steam and carried us through to lunch. An extended lunch gave us time to get to know each other and take strolls along the nature paths down to the lake.

Path by the lake at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle, WA

Give time to breathe: Path by the lake at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle, WA

After lunch, we discussed how our institutions were approaching the use of media in elearning courses. This was not a deep technical discussion but showed remarkably different approaches to using video, interactive media, and dealing with faculty perceptions of media use. We ended the first day by describing how we work with faculty and subject matter experts as we build online courses. In all of the first day’s topics, the differences were more interesting than the similarities but we sensed a growing shared understanding about our work.

We made informal small group plans for dinner and left for the night. Unfortunately, a few of us never made it to dinner due to a bit of a debacle with a cab company, but that is a different story. When we returned the next morning, it was almost as if we had all been working together for years.

We discussed how we cope with the “firehouse of new technology” in our organizations. Working with online learning technology keeps us all on the bleeding edge at our institutions but maintaining our innovative spirit and continuing to invest is a significant challenge with tight budgets. In the final session, we had our only breakout session. People could choose to talk in-depth about online learning development tools or discuss managing the distance education enterprise. We could see the progress across groups because people were taking notes for both sessions in the same Google doc.

We came back together for a few minutes before we had to go our separate ways. Numerous ideas came out about how we could all work together to solve some of our shared challenges. Some of these ideas became next steps in the Google doc. The most popular idea was that this event was one of the more valuable professional development opportunities people had attended and it should be held at least annually. Boston anyone?

By the end of the meeting, our Google doc had expanded to over 15 pages of shared notes and we all gained a lot from sharing across institutions. More importantly, the format showed us that we had colleagues facing similar challenges and we could reach out when needed. I look forward to learning more with this group as a part of my extended network!

2012 ASG eLearning Meeting Group Photo March 2, 2012 in Seattle, WA

New colleagues and friends: 2012 ASG eLearning Meeting Group Photo March 2, 2012 in Seattle, WA



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Rube Goldberg Instructional Design

Rube Goldberg created incredibly silly contraptions to accomplish simple tasks. His work is now recognized through an annual contest.  In the event, engineering students compete to create the most complicated and creative solutions that to solve simple problems.  The official 2012 contest is approaching and has me thinking about how instructional designs can be over-engineered.

In March 2011 the University of Wisconsin-Stout team won the national competition (for the second year in a row) with a machine that completed 135 steps to water a plant.  This year’s competition is to over-complicate inflating a balloon.

What is the value of creating a complicated, albeit creative, solution to a simple problem? For the students involved, they have fun and learn about engineering, physics, and the properties of various substances.  The events promote science, engineering, and the programs at the schools involved.  These activities are outstanding in every way except one: the outcome.  The products these machines create are irrelevant.

As we create instructional technologies and designs, how many of them are Rube Goldberg machines?  Designers create complex new technical schemes or media-rich products when much simpler and more elegant solutions will work.  Everyone involved in such design processes learns a lot and the contraption might be fun to watch but is the end product worth it?

The answer is, of course, it depends.  If the intended outcome is knowledge for the technologist, then such a design is a success.  Similarly, if the users of the product participate in its creation, then it is also worth it (but this is a rare instance in most instructional product designs).  If we want the output of the design to be the most important part of the process, then simple and elegant solutions yield better results.

Perhaps a Rube Goldberg instructional design competition would be a lot of fun: create the most complex instructional solution to teach someone a simple task…


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